Friday, June 13, 2014

First Impressions

     I visited the Center for the first time today (Friday, June 6). The Center was a little difficult to find because it's in the Altstadt (Old City) where roads tend to snake around buildings rather than neatly frame them. The exterior of the building is fairly discreet. There's only a few inconspicuous signs on the boundaries of the property advertising the permanent exhibition inside. Otherwise, the building just blends into the row of stone houses that wind deeper into the heart of the city center.

     Two visitors from somewhere else in Europe were at the information kiosk when I entered the Center. (They were the only visitors at the Center at the moment.) A man who was working at the kiosk was briefing them on the Romani people and the Roma Holocaust--an important introduction because very few people know about the fate of European Roma and Sinti (German Romas) during World War II. The man noticed me and asked if I was British, which is par for the course for me. (I suppose it's the red hair.) I said "no" (in German) and introduced myself as the new intern. He recognized my name.

     After he had sent the two visitors off, the man offered to give me an audio recording of the exhibit in English so I could understand everything, but I declined. "Ich muss mein Deutsch üben." (In English, 'I need to practice my German.' After all, I need to develop a working knowledge of the German vocabulary used to discuss the Holocaust.)

     With that I was off to wander the three-floored exhibit.

     I won't go too deeply into the contents of the exhibit in this post because I will undoubtedly touch on them in later posts. However, I think it is important to note the "politics" surrounding this exhibit in particular.

     History tends to forget those who have little social and political clout. This has been true for the Roma, who have been consistently excluded from the main text of history. (And, even when they are included, they are regarded as "gypsies"--thieves, peddlers, beggars.) These pervasive and insidious stereotypes of the Romani people influenced many Nazi policies in the Third Reich.

     Like the Jews, Roma were excluded from the military and certain professions in Nazi Germany. They also lost their German citizenship, and eventually, their lives in the 1930s and forties. Following liberation from the concentration camps, many Sinti and Roma returned to their homes scattered about Europe--asylum in another part of the world was not a possibility for most. Although the Nazis had lost the war, many of the stereotypes of the Romani people persisted (and still do persist) following 1945. Unfortunately, these stereotypes have crept into academia. Since the early 1990s, a debate has existed between two camps of Holocaust historians. One camp claims that Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust were victims of stereotype, particularly the Roma stereotype of criminality. This group of historians draws a line between the racialization of Jews and the supposed criminality of the Roma. The second camp believes that the Roma were subjugated to the same discrimination as the Jews and are, by consequence, victims of a genocide not dissimilar from the Jewish Holocaust.

     It is clear that the Center's mission falls in line with the latter group's reading of history. I, too, would tend to agree with the second camp.

     Although the Jews were certainly the impetus of the Nazi's extermination program given their numbers and relative success in early 20th-century European society, the Roma most definitely came under the umbrella of the "inferior" races in Nazi German--even if they were only an afterthought. The attribution of purported criminality to Roma based on inescapable biology only reinforces this notion. Moveover, as far as I'm concerned, as long as Sinti and Roma individuals were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the gas vans of Chelmno--which many were--they are victims of the Holocaust. It's unfortunate that something as devastating as the Holocaust can invite such vigorous political debate. But I am thankful that there is at least a conversation about the Roma and the Roma Holocaust today. Without this discussion, I probably would have never learned about the Roma genocide. (And it's probably safe to assume that many of you wouldn't have either.) I therefore thank you for joining me on this journey as I begin to uncover a forgotten Holocaust of more than 500,000 people in the most well-documented genocide of all time. With time, I hope we can learn not only about the tragic events of World War II but also about the movers and shakers who are trying to (appropriately) rewrite the past today.

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